On the Earls Court Motor Show
Here we are again in the seductive atmosphere of the Motor Show, our Motor Show, in the heart, or very nearly so, of the Metropolis. There is something secure, snug and uplifting about this greatest of all motor exhibitions in the spacious, well-ventilated and generally excellent Hall at Earls Court. Somehow, as you examine the cars on the manufacturers' stands, sleek and shiny because white-coated attendants are for ever wiping off the finger-prints of an eager proletariat from them and dusting their interiors with feather-brushes, you are transported into delights of anticipation. You forget aching feet, Earls Court fever and a diminishing bank balance as you decide that this or that is the car in which to do your driving in the days to come. Thoughts of long journeys across Europe on sun-drenched summer days to shimmering beaches stocked with tan-coloured beauties in bikinis, of theatre-going on wet London evenings with a sleek, ermine-cloaked beauty beside you in the cosiest of coupes, of driving to a sporting venue in the latest of modern sports cars, and of getting the very best value ever in everyday motoring, backed up by impeccable service, from one of the new small cars, are conjured up by the wonder and appeal of the Motor Show.
It is curious that the cars at Earls Court seem the most desirable possessions in the world; never do they convey the slightest suggestion that bores, in time, become oval, bearings tend to enlarge, bodies become shabby and leaky, and gears, given time, make their ill-meshing presence heard. The Sales Executives tell not of such calamities and we viewers, eager for escapism, do not wish them so to do.
This year the Motor Show is stimulating, too, because we see products in a "buyers' market." No longer are delivery dates expressed in terms of years, the majority of models for export only, and the more exotic Continental cars sold (to rich Americans only) almost before the turnstiles commence to click.
We can go to Earls Court, dream dreams, emerge, fill in a form and expect to take delivery of a brand-new motor car certainly before the summer of 1954 turns into autumn -- although, if it be as brief as this year's summer, some slick deliveries will have to be completed!
There is no denying it -- motoring is one of the most covetable of all the many pastimes which homo sapiens has devised to hasten his passage from cradle to grave. We live in a mechanical age, so it isn't surprising that we are mechanically minded. World War II taught thousands of Europeans to wield spanners, graphs and vehicle controls instead of pens, blotters and the keys of cash-tills and recording machines. Man likes movement and with ownership of a car he gets it, in a very convenient, fascinating and satisfactory form.
I am perfectly prepared to be told that owning a boat is less nerve-racking and far more beneficial to one's health than roaring down the by-pass or waiting impatiently in the traffic-jams which occur daily on our trunk roads and in our cities. But unless, like Mole, you have a friend who understands about boats it is difficult to take the plunge -- although I do commend you to look at the boats, big, medium and small, on exhibition at Earls Court and note their apparently modest price, aided by a negligible purchase tax.
I used to listen and be almost convinced when people (usually in tatty leather coats, swinging leather helmets by their telephone leads) said: "The Future is in the Air." The idea of piloting one's own D.H. "Moth" above the congested roads and twisting, narrow lanes of England appealed, and still does. But today, alas, private aviation is only one degree less dead than the dodo.
So back we come to ownership of an automobile. It is the convenience of its door-to-door transportation facilities, the skill required (and we hope expended) in driving it, the appeal to the mechanically minded of probing its mechanical/electrical/chemical depths, and its value as a self-propelled portable snuggery to courting couples, that makes ownership of a motor car the ambition alike of young and old, kings and commoners, those who work primarily with their hands and those who claim to do so with their heads. Public interest in motoring was never better demonstrated than by the enormous crowds which visited the first post-war Earls Court Motor Show, when cars were obtainable only under covenant and by waiting several years.
In consequence has the great British motor industry prospered, bringing its attractive wares together this month at the great Earls Court Motor Exhibition of the S.M.M.T. Once the plaything of the idle rich (not so idle, however, while coaxing to life an inert 60 Napier or controlling the caprices of a Benz Ideal), the motor car today brings pleasure to countless thousands -- and unfortunately, tragedy to the unlucky. More than this, Britain's prosperity and standard of living is influenced very largely by the overseas sales of her motor vehicles.
In an age when atom bombs burst safely at the behest of scientists and the air is filled with screaming jets, a motor journey might seem a very commonplace occurrence. Yet I will confess, and gladly, that when I leave Earls Court tonight, probably with the street lamps reflected in rain-sodden pavements and an October mist rising, to drive, first down the broad thoroughfare of Kensington to the congestion of Hammersmith and on through the suburbs of Chiswick, and thence along the factory-flanked, twin-track arterial highway that by-passes Brentford, Isleworth and Hounslow (where the canal is and where gas-works and Frazer-Nash cars abide), to Staines, after negotiation of which riverside town I shall have the west-bound lengths of A30 ahead of me, I shall feel again the wonder of this personal transportation -- which frees me from crawling 'buses, the teeming Underground, and draughty station platforms and in exchange for petrol, water and Castrol, is ready and eager to travel every road, by-way, lane and bridle path throughout the British Isles that I may wish to traverse. (This without having, as the more cynical of my readers may imagine, spent any time at all in any of Earls Court's many well-stocked bars!) With me, and I hope with you, almost any motor journey, save that to the dentist, bank manager or Inland Revenue office, fills me with pleasure at being able to travel quite freely, in my own time, over areas which would be quite impossible on foot and which would occupy weeks on horseback.
Mark you, before the war, when the required fluids were far less costly than they are now (petrol at about 1s. 3d. instead of 4s. 3d. a gallon, oil a few pence per pint instead of 1s. 7½d., and the water-rate not exorbitant!), much of the true enthusiast's pleasure lay in undertaking long journeys. Although in those days I spent much of my motoring time in humble little cars, we never felt we had motored unless the Sunday drive ran to 150 - 200 miles. Thus we got to know much of this pleasant country, which now takes on the aspect of something remembered but dimly. I recall pre-war "jaunts" as far north as John o' Groats, as far west as Land's End, as far east as Dover, as well as journeys into Gloucestershire, Wales, along the winding, wind-swept roads of the Fen country, and to remote parts of Kent, Sussex, Suffolk and the other Home Counties.
I also remember a famous County Court judge saying, in 1927, that on his salary of £1,500 a year he couldn't afford a car. The Jowett brothers used this as the basis of one of their famous advertisements, pointing out that you could run a 7-h.p. Jowett 10,000 miles in a year for less than 1,500 shillings. (What they would have thought of the present troubles which seem to be forcing the Jowett Company out of car production, I shudder to think!)
The war, bringing petrol-rationing, rising motoring expenses, the black-out, and far less spare time, put a stop to the aforesaid delightfully inexpensive mechanised wanderings, and since the war there has been the savage petrol tax to contend with, so that many motorists now consider a run from London to Goodwood or Brands Hatch, for instance, a good day's outing, and a journey as far afield as Silverstone or Prescott or Shelsley Walsh a considerable accomplishment. The Treasury might well debate whether a substantial cut in the "half-dollar" petrol tax wouldn't bring in more revenue by prompting much additional motoring. And abolition of purchase tax would constitute a graceful welcome to the new small cars making their bow at this year's Motor Show . . . Even in the cheerful, party-atmosphere of Earls Court, alas, these dreams seem unlikely to materialise.
Motoring journalists, of course, still cover astronomical mileages each year and racing drivers like Mike Hawthorn, Ken Wharton and Stirling Moss find Ferraris, Zephyrs and Jaguars insufficient and have to take to the air as well, on their travels.
Good fun that long-distance motoring in good cars is, the Motor Show seems to put emphasis, too, on the usefulness and convenience of the motor car over shorter distances under winter conditions -- especially in these days of built-in heaters, de-misters, de-frosters, radio and fly-deflectors. Whether it is commuting to and from the office, taking a new blonde to the theatre, or the children back to school, the modern car adds enormously to the pleasure derived.
It was not always thus, and a Show pastime amongst pioneers of the industry is recalling the Early Years of the Motor Car, when everyone -- not merely the mad young enthusiasts -- was obliged to motor the hard way. Today the V.C.C. and V.S.C.C., aided by specialist publications, see to it that the younger generation is made aware of the hardships their parents put up with, and how the modern car evolved, which is surely a Very Good Thing.
Another Earls Court time-killer is that of debating which motor cars represent the world's best half-dozen, or which half-dozen manufacturers have exerted the greatest influence on the motoring scene down the years. Scrawled on the back of an Earls Court menu, for instance, I found this:--
"Austin, because their Austin Seven from 1923 onwards provided the only thoroughly satisfactory motoring for the million.
"Bentley, because they made 'sports car' a term revered even by vicars and maiden aunts.
"Sunbeam, because they were so clever in bringing prestige to Britain by racing French and Italian cars.
"Bugatti, because he set a standard up to which all motorcar constructors, amateur or professional, could (and still can) contrive to live.
"Hispano-Suiza, because in the stern no-holds-barred competition of the nineteen-twenties they made the best luxury car in the world, without applying that label to it.
"General Motors, because they, more than any other manufacturer, have turned out those vast, soft-riding vehicles which are ideally suited to motoring in the U.S. but which enable Englishmen to appreciate the good qualities of their own products."
If, of course, it is a question of which manufacturers have provided the most motoring pleasure for the greatest number of motor-car owners, we need look no farther than our own deservedly prosperous "Big Five" -- the B.M.C., Ford, Rootes, Standard and Vauxhall. I would also single out Jaguar, for setting very high standards of value-for-money in the decidedly difficult post-war era and because their XK120 was the first sports car to combine beauty of line and true docility with performance in the racing-car category -- a lead quickly followed by the DB2 Aston Martin, Frazer-Nash and Austin-Healey.
Naturally, the high-lights of any Motor Show are the new models. This year at Earls Court we have them in plenty. The Standard Eight, the Ford New Anglia and New Prefect, the so-covetable Bristol 404 sports saloon, the R4 Jowett Jupiter, the two-carburetter Armstrong-Siddeley Sapphire, the Sunbeam Alpine (on its first Earls Court appearance), the 3-litre Lagonda, Aston Martin's more accommodating DB2-4, the dignified Lanchester Dauphin and Sports Daimler, A.C.'s new-chassis job the "new-look" M.G. Midget, Gerry Palmer's Riley Pathfinder, Alec Issigonis' fast new Alvis, the de luxe Zephyr Zodiac, the two-door A30 and Ford Popular value for money sparring partners are there for your inspection and appraisal.
Technical innovations are, perhaps, fewer than at certain earlier shows, but ingenuity is found in detail if not in fundamental design change. The electric cooling fan, thermostatically-controlled, of the new Jupiter is a case in point, although I wonder exactly how much h.p. the old belt-driven fan absorbed and what the saving of this represents in increased performance on the road? The Jowett engineers are demons for research, so I shall expect to be told.
Ford might be termed the greatest exponent of the people's car even if people who have to ride in the back seat, of an Anglia do not always fall in love with him. It is fitting, therefore, that Earls Court sees new examples of the Ford Eight and Ten, and that Dagenham still offers the least-expensive British car.
It is equally fitting that Standard should introduce a new car, for the fortunes of the company were retrieved in 1927 by the introduction of another small Standard, the famous Nine, and since then this maker has offered a sound range of cars, the Vanguard, the recently-deceased Mayflower, the Triumph Renown, and the sensational new 2-litre Triumph Sports being all very fine productions.
The lightweight Bristol 404 is just what for a long time I have hoped the great Filton Aeroplane Company's Car Division would build. If I were able to choose the six cars I would most like to take away from Earls Court, I should have a Bristol 404 because it should do all I would require of a closed car of only 2 litres; a Le Mans Frazer-Nash because it is a genuine sports car devoid of frills; an Austin-Healey because it is a car deserving of everyone's support; a Fiat 500C because it is the sort of baby car Britain should build; a Volkswagen because I like driving a Volkswagen and because I'm notoriously careless about draining my radiator on frosty nights; and -- well, a 2CV Citroen, because after buying and housing such a collection that would be all I could afford to run.
That is pure "window-shopping," but then that is all part of the fun of going to the Motor Show. That, and the pride to be derived from seeing the splendid array and selection of motor cars which the British motor industry displays to the world's buyers.
Although British motor manufacturers now number 36 instead of many times that number, they contrive to supply cars of every class, from 40 m.p.g. economy vehicles and spacious family saloons and convertibles, to big luxury limousines and the fastest sports and high-performance models.
It is, I think, interesting to note how, in spite of the great changes which have taken place in design and production technique, the manufacturer of 1953 invariably makes cars of much the same style and class as he did, shall we say, in 1933. Thus A.C. show at Earls Court a six-cylinder wet-liner 2-litre which, beneath its bonnet, has a very great similarity to the famous light-alloy 2-litre A.C. of S. F. Edge's day. The Allard, as ever, remains a sports car built by an enthusiast for enthusiasts. Alvis ally high performance with quality, just as this respected Coventry firm did from the time of their first 10/30 model and subsequently in their fine 12/50, Speed Twenty and 12/70 cars.
The Armstrong-Siddeley Sapphire was, its makers admit, designed deliberately to follow in the A.-S. tradition and so appeal to purchasers who all their lives have owned Arinstrong-Siddeley cars. Indeed, the two-carburetter, increased-urge Sapphire has been introduced, I understand, rather in surprise at so much interest being displayed in a fast version of this fine vehicle, after an exciting W. O. Bentley-designed engine intended for the new chassis was abandoned as not quite in the "silent Sphinx" tradition.
Aston Martin make as fine a sports car today under the aegis of David Brown as ever they did when controlled by Bamford and Lionel Martin, A. C. Bertelli or the Duke of Sutherland.
Austin offer the same sort of comprehensive range of cars for the people, from baby to limousine, as ever conceived by the late Sir Herbert Austin, who, from "Seven" to "Twenty" built thoroughly dependable vehicles.
Bentley is a name respected in sporting circles today as much as it was its the days of the rugged "old-school" models or at the time when "W. O." showed Rolls-Royce how to make that original "silent sports car," the delightful 3½-litre.
Bristol were not making cars in 1933 but ever since they commenced to do so they have remained unswervingly faithful to the high-efficiency 2-litre six-cylinder power unit, with modern push-rod valve gear, evolved from some pre-war German drawings, and have fitted beautifully made and equipped bodywork.
Citroen has never had cause to regret having introduced one-piece all-steel construction, front-wheel drive and torsional suspension in 1932, and has remained in this form ever since.
Daimler pioneered cars sufficiently dignified for use by our Royal Family; cars silent, powerful, easy to control -- and does so still. Ford's aim is to provide completely foolproof motoring for the lower and middle-class social orders, and has been so since model-T days. Frazer-Nash was ever a "dyed-in-the-wool" blue-blooded, sporting thoroughbred, built by hand and largely to the customer's whim, first by genial "Archie" Frazer-Nash, then by the Brothers AIdington -- and, as if to emphasise my point, so it is at Isleworth today. The same applies to Healey, always about the fastest normal production sports model on the British market and always of roughly the same engine dimensions, from the first sensational Riley-engined car to the present brilliant Austin A90-powered Austin-Healey 100.
The Hillman is, as it ever was, a good medium-sized family car with a medium-sized thirst, the H.R.G. has never changed its sports-car style, the Humber is the car for the better-off family man or diplomat, as was the car in vintage times -- although, do I faintly hear members of the Humber Register coughing rather discreetly behind their hands?
Jaguar set out as the long-bonneted S.S.I and neat S.S.II to sell to those seeking something different, and they do so still -- "Bill" Lyons has come a long way since he started making "Swallow" sidecars for the boys who were eager to attract the prettiest motorcycling "fairies."
Jensen's aim has been rather similar and hasn't varied basically, Jowett, I confess, has departed from the purely utility market, but the Lagonda is as much the connoisseurs' car today as were the 2-litre, 3-litre and 4½-litre versions before it.
Lanchester, like Daimler, caters for those wanting dignified, high-class cars and has done this ever since the ingenious original Lanchesters made their debut, and captivated Rudyard Kipling and others. Lea-Francis won the first Ulster T.T. race and has supplied sports cars of sound design ever since. The M.G., evolved by the late Cecil Kimber as a sporting version of the "bull-nose" Morris-Oxford, has become perhaps the best-known and most widely used sports car in the world, and one which has gained more prestige in racing for Britain than some folk credit. Something the same goes for Morgan, from Aero tricar to current Plus Four, which will I believe have an altered frontal appearance and, I hope sincerely, modified steering geometry.
The lesson is as evident with Morris and Riley as with any make. Renault has, admittedly, dropped its bigger models up to the stupendous Forty-Five, but has always offered, as it does now, something small as well. Incidentally, the little rear-engined 750 must be the tailor's despair, because its level-keel ride fails to polish the back of your suit, unlike so many light cars I know.
Rolls-Royce is as much Rolls-Royce in character today as when the Silver Ghost emerged in 1907 -- and for years Rover has made a medium-sized car of real quality. Pursue this line of thought through Singer and Standard, Sunbeam-Talbot and Triumph (whose exciting new sports 2-litre isn't the first sports model Triumph have made), to Vauxhall and Wolseley and you can but agree that although progress alters mechanical methods and outward appearance, the policy behind each British manufacturer's product remains remarkably static.
If you have not already paid a visit to this 38th International Motor Exhibition of the S.M.M.T. I recommend you to do so. If you have been already, go again and see those exhibits which eluded you the first time.
After you have inspected the new models, enthuse again over the old favourites. If you feel disgruntled that no turbo-car is on sale at Earls Court, that bodies of glass-fibre are not common, that automatic transmission and disc brakes and puncture-proof tyres and built-in television and pneumatic suspension are not yet universal, take heart from the following pronouncement, made by the Star Engineering Co., of Wolverhampton: "We live today, unfortunately, in an age of mass-suggestion and mob-hysteria, brought about principally by the daily Press. A few good 'hares' are started, the buying public chase them, and manufacturers find themselves compelled to adopt an idea or device which is of no particular value. It is all wrong, but so long as the public allow the newspapers to do their thinking for them, there is little prospect of a change."
That was written twenty-five years ago but you might well bear those words in mind when you encounter a particularly shocking radiator grille or an unliked intrusion of gear-lever-less transmission. However, taken by and large, our motor-car manufacturers have made excellent progress and, in spite of the influence of "mass-suggestion and mob-hysteria," the exhibits at Earls Court can be strongly recommended! -- W.B.
A Rover Ten "Disco Volante"
The firm, Mitchenall Bros., Darrington, near Amesbury, Wilts, had never produced anything of this kind before, but the "Disco Volante" sports model they built for Flt./Lt. J. M. Crowley, R.A.F., was such a success that he has no hesitation in recommending them most highly. The quality of their construction, panel beating and trimming is of the highest order, and is a joy to see. Furthermore they can produce bodies, trimmed and painted, including necessary mechanical alteration for a price which is extraordinarily low, and compares very favourably with the cost of building a car with a glass-fibre body.
They are prepared to build a body on any suitable chassis, and, indeed, Flt./Lt. Crowley's car was nothing more interesting than a 1939 Rover 10-h.p. -- ex-saloon.
The car was purchased from a farmer, with whom it had had a very hard life, and was at the time of purchase a van! Crowley stripped off the old bodywork and cleaned up the chassis, a special radiator was designed and a horizontal S.U. substituted for the previous downdraught model, with the result that the height at the scuttle was lowered by about 15 inches. A straight-through exhaust pipe and a sports coil were the only other mechanical alterations made at the time, though the owner has great plans for the power plant.
The body was built up of steel tube and aluminium alloys and all the panel work hard-beaten and rolled.
The car is finished in ivory with red upholstery and very efficient all-weather equipment.
Apart from the appearance the most startling discovery has been the improvement in performance.
The acceleration is now almost equal to a TC M.G. and the petrol consumption has improved from an original 32 m.p.g. to 48 m.p.g. on long runs (most carefully checked over a series of long runs), the normal cruising speed being 55 m.p.h. This is mainly accounted for by a reduction in weight of over seven hundredweight, but even so has caused much surprise.
In addition to coachbuilt bodies the firm also hope to produce competition "shells."